Jane Campion’s long-awaited Western is a simmering, seductive masterpiece
Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jesse Plemons) are the polar opposite co-owners of their family cattle ranch, nestled in the breathtaking expanse of the Montana mountains. While George’s appearance skews more towards the fashion of their day in 1925— clean-cut, reserved, and upper class—Phil fits every frame of the rugged, macho cowboy image. His presence is stern and commanding, with the air of seizing one’s respect by force long before he enters a room. Each of Phil’s words cut and drive like iron spokes in a railway. He’s wholly comfortable with their isolated life, entering into town only to drive in cattle for income and booze it up with his co-workers before making a swift journey home. The solitude doesn’t sit well with George, however; soon enough, he’s married to local innkeeper Rose (Kirsten Dunst), bringing her soft-spoken son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in tow. To Phil, Rose and Peter’s presence is as vile and infectious as the Anthrax posing a threat to their cattle, and he soon begins a prolonged experiment in psychological warfare against the two interlopers.
In a filmography including the Oscar-winning The Piano and television’s Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s works have long expressed a fascination between her characters’ chosen landscapes and their own suppressed emotional turmoil. As much as her characters don’t want to admit they have an impact on the land they call home, much less each other, the volatile natural world dares them to admit otherwise. In The Power of the Dog, the blistering mountains of Montana provide the perfect crucible for the cowherds and the civilized to wage war with one another, often in equally isolated vignettes of humiliation, tenderness, cruelty, and kindness. Along the way, Phil’s vicious attacks on Rose and Peter are undercut by his increasing phobic tendencies towards the mother and son’s compassion for one another—a compassion that seems missing from the relationship between Phil and George, and even more so between Phil and his dearly departed ranch hand idol, Bronco Henry. As a result, Phil’s command over the elements seems to wane. Phil is initially a stoic god, exacting his wrath on the innocents living on the ranch, but he is betrayed by a manifesting vulnerability, one which may seem to him a fate worse than death.
Campion’s steadfast, exacting direction vividly brings Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel to life, with a breathtaking focus on the evocative juxtaposition between still landscapes and characters who are anything but. In a delicate dance between stoic, solemn rigidity and an equally commanding visceral movement, Campion captures her ensemble perpetually between fight and flight, each careful or impulsive decision determining their fates moment by moment. Further heightening Campion’s direction are Ari Wegner’s ravishing cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s elegiac, bristling score, two artistic achievements that further tie The Power of the Dog’s complex themes and characters together to become even greater than the sum of its stellar parts. Wegner defines the vibrant world of the film with painterly yet organic landscapes, while Greenwood’s discordant strings and echoing horns shift from mournful to adventurous to something far more enigmatic on a dime. The result is a film brimming with visual, aural, and subtextual tension. It’s a film that’s thrillingly unpredictable, but never feels out of its creators’ control.
At Campion’s command is a terrific ensemble, led by a career-best performance by Cumberbatch. What makes Phil such a great character isn’t how enigmatic or powerful he initially is, but instead how Campion steadily peels away his protective machismo to reveal the vulnerable loner underneath. Between scenes of Phil’s command of a crowd of cowboy clones, triumphantly staring down a prim dinner party while covered in mud, and more secluded moments of the ranch hand bathing in a hidden pond like a tantrum-ridden alligator (to say nothing of his telling fondness for his deceased mentor), Campion and Cumberbatch delight in Phil’s duality: A man who outwardly rejects any sense of softness but is inwardly repulsed by how much softness he might have in himself. In turn, Smit-McPhee’s Peter feels like a man born almost a century too early, with a limp slouch and tender eye for the wilderness around him easily turned into a point of offense and ridicule by Phil and his grimy, musclebound cohorts. But in Campion’s ever-shifting landscape, those undermining initial judgments are, to many, an underestimation of Peter’s capabilities: His soft compassion provides an effective fuel for future vengeance dispensed in an equally reserved and unassuming fashion.
Caught between the two are Plemons and Dunst, a real-life star couple turned deliberately ineffectual and mismatched. Both are so damn kind to one another throughout The Power of the Dog, seeing potential in each other that the world seems to miss at first glance, from Rose teaching George how to dance atop a mountain after their wedding, to George literally stepping up to the plate to quell raging diners in Rose’s inn. However, Phil’s domineering influence also causes them to bring out the worst in each other. George struggles with an inability to command others or even have his own sense of personality in the face of others who are so much more defined and assured. Rose is terrified by Phil’s effortless ability to complete the same tasks that are thrust upon her by her role as George’s husband and as an everywoman suddenly in the echelons of the upper class. Prolonged exposure to Phil causes both George and Rose to degrade—both in terms of their appearance and their inner beliefs. Only Peter, despite Phil’s best efforts, is able to withstand his attacks, just as assured in who he is as Phil is in himself.
Driven by a cast and crew at the peaks of their respective powers, The Power of the Dog is a psychologically explosive film of beautiful and deliberate measure, one that traverses an emotional landscape as vast and mysterious as the jagged terrain the characters inhabit.
The Power of the Dog is now playing in limited theatrical release courtesy of Netflix ahead of a streaming debut on December 1st.